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Tyler Held

Achievements

About Tyler Held

Tyler Held is a professional groom and Sport and Performance Psychology Consultant. You may have seen her over the last few years working for International 5* Jennie Brannigan or listened to an episode of her podcast, The Whole Equestrian. Tyler started riding in summer camp at the age of 5 and essentially never looked back. She obtained her Undergraduate degrees in Animal Science and Equine Business Management from the University of Findlay in 2014. During this time, she spent her summers doing her first working student job at an eventing barn and quickly became obsessed with the sport. After experiencing some mental blocks in her own riding, she decided to focus more on grooming and learning more about Sport Psychology. In 2017 she moved to Chester County, PA to work as a Vet Tech and groom for Dr. Kevin Keane, which opened a lot of doors in the eventing community. Just as she finished her Master’s Degree in Sport and Performance Psychology, she took the reins at Brannigan Eventing as head groom. Now partially retired from grooming, Tyler is focusing on finishing up her Doctorate and requirements to be a Certified Mental Performance Coach (CMPC).

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The Power of Perception in Addressing Mental Health for Equestrians

Tyler Held shares a moment with FE Lifestyle. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Dr Tyler Held is a professional groom and Sport and Performance Psychology Consultant. You may have seen her over the last few years working for 5* rider Jennie Brannigan or listened to an episode of her podcast, The Whole Equestrian. Tyler started riding at summer camp at the age of 5 and essentially never looked back. She obtained her Undergraduate degrees in Animal Science and Equine Business Management from the University of Findlay in 2014. During this time, she spent her summers doing her first working student job at an eventing barn and quickly became obsessed with the sport. After experiencing some mental blocks in her own riding, she decided to focus on grooming and learning more about Sport Psychology. In 2017 she moved to Chester County, PA to work as a Vet Tech and groom for Dr. Kevin Keane, which opened a lot of doors in the eventing community. Just as she finished her Master’s Degree in Sport and Performance Psychology, she took the reins at Brannigan Eventing as head groom. Now partially retired from grooming, Tyler is focusing on life as a Certified Mental Performance Coach (CMPC).

My good friend (and five-star rider) Emily Hamel and I have talked about mental health for equestrians for the past four years as an element to our podcast, The Whole Equestrian, with the mission of bridging the gap between riding and wellness. We’ve provided actionable advice, and we’ve gotten positive feedback from our listeners who have been able to put the lessons to work in their everyday life. And yet, as someone who knows the reality of working in an eventing barn in this country, I still feel like our dream to promote health and happiness through our love of horses is just that: more a dream than a reality.

In our dream, workers can take sick days, plan and keep doctor’s appointments, sit down to eat a healthy lunch, and see their families more than once a year. The dream is that these individuals have time to pursue a hobby outside of horses, cook healthy meals for themselves, and even cross-train their bodies and minds outside of the barn and the saddle. 

The reality, as someone who has lived it, is a bit different. The reality is that horses require around-the-clock care. Managing them exhausts most of our physical and mental energy for the day, and even if you wanted to eat healthy or work out, the time and resources to do those things are non-existent. 

Don’t get me wrong, when I was grooming I tried to do all the things. I made it a personal mission to ignore the ‘harsh realities’ and worked to pave my own path. I practiced Jiu Jitsu almost daily, I took classes towards my doctorate in sport and performance psychology, I read books, I meal-prepped, I pursued relationships outside of the barn and I even snuck in a few ‘non-horse’ related trips. However, in doing all these things, I suffered from a lot of stress and anxiety. I rarely lived in the present moment because I was always thinking of the ‘next thing’ on my to-do list and I even suffered from some pretty severe stress rashes. On the outside, I was doing all the ‘right’ things I had learned from my study of high performance that were supposed to make me successful, and yet by pushing too hard and doing too much, I actually ended up in a stress overload. 

I’ve had a lot of time over the last year to think about this particular problem, and how mental health can be more attainable within the harsh realities of our industry. Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t things that could and should be done on the side of the employers and the structure of our industry to make things better, but that’s another article for another day. Instead, I want to talk about how our perspective (something we can control) can help us feel a little bit more healthy, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in at this moment. And I hope to do this using a parable about three bricklayers, who are working to construct a church. 

When asked “what are you doing?”, the first bricklayer says, “I am laying bricks”; the second bricklayer says, “I am building a wall”; and the final bricklayer exclaims, “I am building a house for God.” The physical task that these three bricklayers are doing is identical and yet the more meaning they put behind the task, the more they’ll be driven and inspired throughout the process.

I bring up this example because when I first started grooming, I truly felt that I was like that third bricklayer, building a house for God. Any sacrifice that I made didn’t feel like a sacrifice at all, because it served a greater purpose and helped me belong to the sport of eventing in a way that made me feel empowered and unstoppable. 

The tricky thing about perspective is that almost anything can shift it. It can be an injury (to yourself or your horse), a string of bad weather, a bad performance at a show or in a lesson, or a bad fall. Or, if you’re like me, maybe you just tried to do too many things at once and burnt yourself out and all of a sudden what once felt like building a house for God turned into just laying bricks. 

Now, I’ve never been a bricklayer before, but I can imagine that the task reduced down to the task itself becomes monotonous, back-breaking work. Not unlike mucking out yet another stall, taking another horse out to the turnout field that is farthest away from the barn, or doing another 35-minute trot set on the same track you’ve just taken five other horses on. 

It doesn’t matter how we lose our perspective, but it certainly does suck when it happens. Because the thing is, most people get into horses for the love and there’s nothing more heartbreaking than when something that you love doesn’t bring the same joy to you that it once did. 

So I invite you to spend some time thinking about yourself, and your journey with horses and the bricklayers. Why are you here? Can you put yourself back in the shoes of that excited, nervous feeling you felt when you first stepped into the saddle at pony camp? Do you remember how awestruck you were the first time you watched a horse gallop past you on the cross country at Kentucky? Do you remember the last time you spent time with a horse and really enjoyed them for the pure magic that they bring us? 

Reconnect with your ‘why’, and define the value that you get out of this industry. Strong values drive committed action and they might just bring a little bit more of a spark to the in-and-out day-to-day manual labor that “comes with the job”.  And, if you find yourself in a space where you’ve searched your soul and you still can’t find that spark, keep looking. My life now isn’t anything like what my horse-crazy kid-version of myself would have ever dreamed of, but I still get to have horses be a huge part of it working as a Mental Performance Coach for Equestrian athletes and I’m grateful for every second of it. 

 

The Pre-Performance Advantage

How do riders prepare for the mental challenges of eventing? We aim to find out. Photo by Abby Powell.

When Tiger Woods steps up to the tee, he stands behind the ball holding his club, visualizes where he wants the shot to land, BEFORE taking the shot. Once he is in position, he looks at the ball and the target one more time, and executes the shot as he saw it in his head.

When Michael Jordan shot a free throw, he would take a shoulder width stance, spin the ball in his hands, bounce the ball three times, and then spin the ball once again while fixating the rim before he finally threw the ball.

These elite athletes, like many others, are engaging in a pre-performance routine, or a set of predetermined thoughts and actions that are used before performance challenges. When used effectively, pre-performance routines have been proven to give athletes a competitive advantage.

So what does an effective pre-performance routine look like to an equestrian athlete?

Well, as with all things mental, there is no “one size fits all” answer to this question. Pre-performance routines should help prime us to be physically and mentally ready for the challenge ahead of us. As eventers, I think we can all recognize that the mental activation required of dressage is not the same as that of cross country, but I’m curious as to how athletes change their preparation approach through each phase of competition.

Next week, I will have the opportunity to be amongst some of the most elite riders at one of the most high pressure competitions of the year — the Maryland 5 Star — and I will be interviewing athletes on what they think are the most important elements of their mental preparation that helps them get “in the zone” across the three phases of competition.

Be sure to tune in to updates on Eventing Nation, and let me know what questions you have about mental readiness and performance routines — you can email me your question or post it in the comments.

Psst! Tyler is holding a silent auction of some exciting equestrian items to raise money for cancer research and support. Please be sure to check it out and get your bids in before November 1st here.

Rider Responsibility and Effective Goal-Setting

Tyler Held is a professional groom and Sport and Performance Psychology Consultant. You may have seen her over the last few years working for 5* rider Jennie Brannigan or listened to an episode of her podcast, The Whole Equestrian. Tyler started riding at summer camp at the age of 5 and essentially never looked back. She obtained her Undergraduate degrees in Animal Science and Equine Business Management from the University of Findlay in 2014. During this time, she spent her summers doing her first working student job at an eventing barn and quickly became obsessed with the sport. After experiencing some mental blocks in her own riding, she decided to focus on grooming and learning more about Sport Psychology. In 2017 she moved to Chester County, PA to work as a Vet Tech and groom for Dr. Kevin Keane, which opened a lot of doors in the eventing community. Just as she finished her Master’s Degree in Sport and Performance Psychology, she took the reins at Brannigan Eventing as head groom. Now partially retired from grooming, Tyler is focusing on finishing up her Doctorate and requirements to be a Certified Mental Performance Coach (CMPC).

Jennie Brannigan and FE Lifestyle. Photo by Abby Powell.

The summer after my freshman year of college was the first time that I was able to cross the finish flags of a recognized event, and to say I was hooked was an understatement. I had always been interested in the sport of Eventing, but competing didn’t become a reality until I was able to work through some serious training gaps in the OTTB my parents had bought me when I was 14 years old.

After a solid year of Dressage boot camp, “Fred” and I were able to have an awesome summer, bringing home ribbons at both the Beginner Novice and Novice level. Unfortunately, when I returned to school I received advice that would ultimately ruin my competition success in eventing. I was told that if I wanted to be anyone in this sport, that I would need to buy a nicer horse and I would need to set my sights on making it to Young Riders.

Mind you, I had maybe completed four Novice courses at this point. But my parents knew how much riding meant to me, so they agreed and bought me a horse that had a nice record at Prelim. I had two years to go from Novice to 2* and I laid out my goals accordingly. I knew it would be a stretch, but I’m a hard worker, so I thought that I could do it.

The problem was, I got so focused on the outcomes of the shows, that I stopped actually figuring out HOW to ride my horse.

We did OK at first, but as I moved up to Training, it was clear that there were gaps in my riding that were difficult to overcome when all I wanted to do was check the boxes of completing shows. I ended up falling off my new horse, Andy, at my first attempt at a Training Three-Day and I was absolutely devastated. Andy and I were fine and healthy (we actually ended up even running the one-day Training event over the same weekend) but my mindset and attitude went down in the dumps because my move-up plans were ruined.

For most riders, the pressure to move up the levels is not a foreign concept. The natural progression of riding and improving is the desire to challenge yourself at the next big thing. However, so often when we focus just on the move-up, qualifications and outcomes of events themselves we cause ourselves stress, disappointment and even performance breakdowns.

The environment and culture around the move-up can be toxic at best and dangerous at worst. When we don’t prepare ourselves properly for the skills required of the levels we are doing, accidents can and will happen.

So, how does this tie into Sport Psychology? In my practice, I do a lot of work to help riders set effective goals. Goals help us shape our focus, and focus helps us perform at our peak. The goal to move-up is of course a goal, however, it lacks the specificity and direction of HOW and WHAT needs to be completed to get there. HOW do you level up mentally, physically and technically from a Novice level rider to a Training level rider? WHAT are your strengths and weaknesses? WHAT skills do you need to learn about and master? HOW do you know if you are truly ready to move up a level?

Have big goals? What does your goal planning process look like? Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Chances are, your goals look something like this: 

  • July 30th- Novice at Jersey 
  • August 13th- Novice at Fair Hill 
  • September 3rd- Novice at Seneca (LAST ONE!!!) 
  • October 5th- MOVE UP TO TRAINING @ Morven!!!! 

Sure, you’ve got things you’re ‘working on’ in your lessons, and you’re probably practicing things that you need to practice, but do you get more specific about what gaps you need to fill to actually move up a level successfully? I’m not saying that you can’t set a goal that is outcome-based — in fact, this is part of the process. Winning a ribbon, getting a qualifying score, and going double clear are all great examples of outcome goals. Even as we keep these things in mind, we can’t stop there.

It is MORE important to focus on what are known as Process Goals. Process Goals focus on the action required of a given task; for example, making sure that you and your horse have the proper level of fitness, making sure that you’ve mastered the collective marks in your dressage test and understanding the technical approach to certain cross country questions that might appear at your level.

I find that a lot of equestrians shy away from specific goal-setting because they believe that they need to remain open to the ever changing needs of their horse. While I don’t deny that horsemanship requires adaptability, it doesn’t mean your goal setting should be thrown to the wayside. Do you set goals for yourself? Be honest: are you more focused on the outcomes of your work or the process?

Whether your goal is to go to the 5* level or make it to Training level, the process of making a goal into reality is the same. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Even if you never want to leave the start box at an official event, I can’t stress the importance of setting effective goals. The process helps us to look forwards in a productive way but also allows us to be more self-aware and self-reflective.

The best news? This doesn’t even take that much time- so grab a pen and some paper and you’re one step closer to being a goal-oriented and responsible rider!

Here’s a quick example of what more effective goals might look like for moving up to Training level (want to try this out? Click here to download this worksheet as a PDF):

Goal Setting Worksheet

Main Goal: Move up to Training level this fall

Motivation for Goal:

  • Demonstrate the progress I have made in my training
  • Increase trust and relationship I have with my horse
  • To HAVE FUN!

Process Goals (what specific skills are you working on to make your main goal possible):

  • Improve my personal fitness and stamina by working out a minimum of 3 times a week for 30 minutes
  • Improve rhythm and relaxation in dressage through working with a new dressage trainer 2x a week
  • Increase adjustability of canter and improve understanding of appropriate balance to have for different jumping questions- take videos and review what feels and looks the best
  • Increase my horse’s fitness routine- work with my trainer to come up with an appropriate balance of fitness/jumping/dressage and hack/recovery days
  • Work on confidence/mindset- begin a confidence journal based on the technical skills I am working to master and track progress.

You can even take this one step further and identify different obstacles and behaviors that might facilitate or inhibit your performance, with a readiness plan like this one:

Readiness Plan:

Preparation: Technical, strategic, physical & psychological readiness for training and competition
Goal: Build confidence through competence and practice. Make sure that I am getting ample time to practice Dressage, Show Jumping and Cross Country and am feeling good about all of the skills required of the level.
Obstacle: Finding the time to balance practice of the three phases with my horses fitness work and other life distractions
Behavior: Plan my weeks ahead of time, being realistic about time commitments that I can make. Start a confidence journal where I track the progress of my training

Resilience and coping with adversity: Positive coping with performance challenges, setbacks, and errors
Goal: Find a process to help calm my mind/emotions during show jumping when I’m struggling to see a distance
Obstacle: My tendency to get frustrated and emotional as things go wrong
Behavior: Practice thought stopping and keep a self-talk log

Focus: Concentration on the most important parts of the task at hand and being able to shift attention when needed and letting go of distractions
Goal: Quiet my mind to distractions in the show ring
Obstacle: Tendency to be an overthinker
Behavior: Add in a mindfulness routine out of the saddle to strengthen the mental muscle of focus

With a robust plan like this one, you can make the move up without the harsh discovery of those gaps in your preparation.

A Different Answer to Performance Problems with Tyler Held

Joining EN as a regular columnist, Tyler Held is a professional groom and Sport and Performance Psychology Consultant. You may have seen her over the last few years working for 5* rider Jennie Brannigan or listened to an episode of her podcast, The Whole Equestrian. Tyler started riding in summer camp at the age of 5 and essentially never looked back. She obtained her Undergraduate degrees in Animal Science and Equine Business Management from the University of Findlay in 2014. During this time, she spent her summers doing her first working student job at an eventing barn and quickly became obsessed with the sport. After experiencing some mental blocks in her own riding, she decided to focus on grooming and learning more about Sport Psychology. In 2017 she moved to Chester County, PA to work as a Vet Tech and groom for Dr. Kevin Keane, which opened a lot of doors in the eventing community. Just as she finished her Master’s Degree in Sport and Performance Psychology, she took the reins at Brannigan Eventing as head groom. Now partially retired from grooming, Tyler is focusing on finishing up her Doctorate and requirements to be a Certified Mental Performance Coach (CMPC).

Tyler Held, head groom for Jennie Brannigan, shares a moment with FE Lifestyle. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Imagine you’re tacking up your horse up for competition. You go to tighten the girth and you start to notice that your hands are shaking. Your heartbeat gets louder and you start to find it difficult to breathe. You try to go through your cross country course but you find that your mind is filled with doubt. Thoughts like “I’m not good enough”, “that fence looks really big”, “I’ve fallen off at something similar to that before” or “don’t screw up” demand your attention.

You get on and try to tell yourself to breathe, but it’s too late — fear, panic, and uncertainty have sealed your fate for the day, and the results are far from desirable.

Now imagine you get to do it all over again. You have the same fears and doubts and yet you’ve learned to question, master, and control them. You’ve spent time practicing how to redirect negative thoughts, and you come into an event feeling confident and prepared. You still feel the butterflies in your stomach as you go to tighten your girth, but when you visualize your course you think to yourself “I’ve got this.” You are cool, calm and collected and while this doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is going to go according to plan, you are much better equipped to deal with things that do go wrong.

The difference between the former and the latter comes down to a choice. How are you going to master your mindset as you ride and compete?

When I personally competed in eventing, I made a lot of errors with my mindset and struggled with debilitating competition anxiety. My own journey in riding led me to the field of Sport and Performance Psychology, first by working with a SPP practitioner to help me get through some mental blocks and now as a practitioner myself so that I can help provide others with the same support.

Photo courtesy of Tyler Held.

I’ve held various jobs in the eventing industry, from working student, to barn manager, to groom and even vet tech, getting to experience the sport as a rider and as a groom, from unrecognized Starter Trials to international 5* competitions. Regardless of the level, however, it seemed everywhere I turned, someone was under mental pressure and stress.

At the Starter Trials, I saw weekend warriors worried they hadn’t had enough time to prepare, as they’ve managed their professional lives, families and horses. When I got to travel overseas with the U.S. Equestrian Team, I got to see and understand what it is like to have a team that is counting on you and see the difference between wanting to do well and having to do well. Even as a groom, I was presented with many mental challenges and obstacles to overcome.

Throughout my journey, one thing has become abundantly clear to me: this sport isn’t easy and mindset plays a large role in an equestrian’s ability to find enjoyment and to perform at their best, regardless of their age, experience or skill level.

Now that I’m semi-retired from grooming, I am putting most of my energy into the completion of my Doctorate (8 credits and 6 months to go!) and am excited to share what I have learned with athletes across the country.

Thanks to the bravery and vulnerability of athletes at high levels, the narrative around mental health is beginning to shift and we are seeing more of a need and acceptance for mental skills training. That being said, it is a common misconception that sport psychology is reserved for “problem athletes”. My work is just as relevant to someone who hopes to optimize and enjoy their performance as someone who hopes to ‘fix’ a problem. Surely most who compete in sports are hoping to win, however when our sights are set on only an outcome, we lose so much of what we can stand to gain from participating in sports.

As I build my practice in Sport and Performance Psychology, I am realistically aware of the sacrifices made by athletes who are at the top 1% of their sport. To these athletes, things like balance and health are sometimes elusive. However, I feel these issues often get skipped over by equestrians of all levels.

When our horse isn’t quite right, we tend to look at the problem from every avenue possible; perhaps we need to have the saddle fitter out, make an adjustment in shoeing, scope for ulcers or get some body work done. However, when riders deal with setbacks there is a greater tendency to “grit your teeth” and “push through it”.

Through this column, I hope to inspire a different answer to these performance problems. The fact of the matter is, equestrian sports have so many variables that we can’t control. As I take the time to discuss topics such as mental toughness, resilience, emotional regulation, and confidence, I encourage you to start to shift your mindset to the variables that you can control and find enjoyment and success along the way.

Some topics to look forward to in the future include:

  • Work/life/horse balance
  • How to look set effective goals (and why you shouldn’t just be focused on winning ribbons)
  • Mental health
  • The dangers of social comparison

You can find more information about me at www.thewholeequestrian.com or find me on Instagram @onthevergebjj or @thewholeequestrian.

Have a topic or a question you’d like answered in a future column? Leave it in the comments or drop me a DM on social media.